In Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, the protagonist laments that his town of Dickens has lost its status as an official city. The fictitious city, based closely on Compton in Southern California, becomes absorbed into the greater city of Los of Angeles. The erased city limits of Dickens come to represent the paradoxical status of race, which is both a ubiquitous feature of life yet also a category that is not officially recognized in a “colour-blind” society.
The weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have witnessed two competing discourses on racism in British Universities. On the one hand, universities have been quick to vocalize their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating racial equality in more assertive and urgent terms than in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). On the other hand, critical commentators have rightly pointed to their poor record of supporting racial equality in practice (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This is evident in the lack of Black members of staff, who comprise just 2.1% of UK university staff but 13% of the population. Universities that truly value Black lives would ensure that they are well-represented and empowered in the organization, but the online movement #BlackInIvory highlights experiences of persistent marginalization.
In response, most universities would point to hiring policies that specifically promote equality, diversity and inclusion. Such policies protect against discrimination by ensuring data on applicants’ social backgrounds (including race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics) is processed separately from the application and by specifically welcoming applicants who hold these “protected characteristics.” Universities could therefore claim that the underrepresentation of Black staff is not due to hiring practices, because these practices do not consider race and therefore cannot be racist.
However, these practices also closely resemble what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (15) terms colour-blind racism, spurious attempts to achieve racial equality by suppressing acknowledgment of racialized histories and identities. Like Beatty’s town of Dickens, color-blind racism erases the city limits, but the landscape remains unchanged. While the categories of race are removed from legitimate discourse, the experiences and standards of dominant race groups remain the norm and expectation in public institutions. This means that students and staff at Universities must confront racist and discriminatory treatment, assumption and expectations, but they are also denied recourse to the terms that would articulate their oppression.
Instead of maintaining a “colour-blind” approach to hiring, British universities could do much more to embody and promote racial justice in their hiring practices. The Equalities and Diversities Act of 2010 allows employers to give preference to under-represented groups in hiring, provided that the candidates are equally qualified (Part 11, Ch 2.4, also 16). In practice, universities tend to cite practices such as targeted advertising or statements welcoming underrepresented groups as positive action (e.g. 17, 18, 19, 20), although the Equalities and Diversities Act instead more directly identifies contracts of employment to equally qualified, applicants from under-represented groups (Part 11, Ch 2.5). Thus, it seems that universities are watering down the intentions of “positive action” and also under-utilizing the means to achieve equitable representation of Black staff provided by current legislation.
A better step to addressing systemic racism in hiring would be to embed contributions to diversity as a priority in appointment criteria. For example, requiring candidates to demonstrate their accomplishments contributing to diversity and inclusion, with the same weight and objectivity that research and teaching are considered, through a written statement would give meaningful recognition to the additional work and challenges that most academics from Black and other minority groups have been required to undertake as part of institutional survival (21, 22). Well-evidenced statements of contributions to diversity are already a standard aspect of academic hiring at many elite universities in other countries.
The title of a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute – The White Elephant in the Room – highlights the extent to which the colour-blind approach embraced in British higher education is no longer tenable. However, progress against the report’s top two recommendations, that universities should participate in the sector-wide Race Equality Charter and facilitate more conversations about race, is minimal. More than four years after its inception, only 14 universities have received a bronze level award from the Race Equality Charter, with no awards at higher levels. Writing in the HEPI report, Kalwant Bhopal notes “there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education,” because, unlike Athena SWAN certification, the Race Equality Charter is not required by research councils.
The white elephant in the room also highlights an important aspect of universities; they tend to think of themselves as neutral rather than white spaces, despite the many signs of white dominance. A first step in moving from colour-blind racism to an anti-racist university will be to come to terms with this whiteness, to listen to the experiences of Black academics and other academics of colour (23, 24), to unlearn current practices and to make universities a space that recognizes and values the experiences of Black academics and professionals and ensures their representation as colleagues in universities.
Thanks to Julia Paulson, Deborah Brewis, Ugbaad Aidid and Lizzi Milligan for feedback on a draft of this post